Top Ten Emerging Technologies: an African Perspective on Fuel cells, Robots and Plastics

Emerging Technologies

On March 4 the World Economic Forum released its list of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2015. The list was put together by the Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies in a bid to offer a vivid glimpse of the power of innovation to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard our planet. Included in the list are zero-emission cars fuelled by hydrogen and computer chips modelled on the human brain

Taking a closer look at this listing of technological breakthroughs that promise innovative solutions to the most pressing global challenges of our time, I could not help but wonder what it really meant for Nigeria and the rest of the developing world. It soon became clear that the list contained ideas that could potentially change millions of lives for the better. It also contained ideas that would receive significant opposition, despite the good that they promise.

In a series of articles, beginning with this one, I’ll be examining the Forum’s list with an African perspective in mind. I hope to tease out what works, what doesn’t and how we can make thing better for those who need what emerging technologies can provide most.

1.  Fuel cell vehicles

Fuel cells generate electricity directly using fuels such as hydrogen or natural gas. The technology has now reached the stage where automotive companies are planning to launch cars that are powered by fuel cells which will not be charged from an external source. The idea is refreshingly innovative because fuel cell vehicles burning hydrogen will be zero-emission, and will not require an external electricity supply.

The more important thing for Africa, though, is the fact that the same idea may find application beyond the automobile industry. With a little scaling, fuel cells could provide electric power to a rural clinic or a small business in an urban center. This could make a major impact on the current problem of electrifying Africa.

This is one idea that should receive generous support. For a start, the hydrogen required to run the fuel cells could be cleanly generated from fossil fuels. Ultimately, it is hope that the technology to produce hydrogen from water will be made more efficient.

2.  Next-generation robotics

With advances in robotics technology now making human-machine collaboration an everyday reality, the new age of robotics is taking these machines away from the big manufacturing assembly lines, and into a wide variety of tasks including farming and nursing.

While is true that robots are ideal for tasks that are too repetitive or dangerous for humans to undertake, it is also true that robots can also work 24 hours a day at a lower cost than human workers. As such there remains the risk that robots may displace human workers from their jobs. This may not be a big deal in Western societies where unemployment rates are low and the social welfare system is robust enough to help people cope. That is not the case in the developing world.

In my home country of Nigeria, for example, the unemployment rate is estimated to be as high as 23.9%. Youth unemployment is even higher, at about 54% in 2012. Government-controlled social welfare programs are also limited in their scope and impact. In this milieu where the manufacturing industry employs most of the non-agricultural workforce, an introduction of the next-generation robotics will likely do more harm than good.

3.  Recyclable thermoset plastics

Given the massive solid waste problems facing Africa and the rest of the developing world, anything that can ease that problem will be a welcome development. Plastics which are tough and resistant to heat yet recyclable after dissolution in strong acid, will make it possible for us to continue using these resilient thermoset plastics in mobile phones and computers while avoiding the creation of more mega dumps for decommissioned electronics. With poly(hexahydrotriazine)s or PHT plastics, landfills and electronic waste sites, such as those of Olusosun, Nigeria and Agbogloshie, Ghana, may soon become a thing of the past.

Next time: Precise genetic engineering, additive manufacturing, and artificial intelligence.

This piece was first published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center


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